Wednesday 19 June 2019

Night of the Big Wind: A stormy start for pensions

As modern public servants embrace their right to work until they are 70, Damian Corless recounts the storm of 1839 that claimants of the new state pension in 1909 were required to remember in order to qualify

Oíche na Gaoithe Móire: pensioners claiming their new benefit in January 1909
Oíche na Gaoithe Móire: pensioners claiming their new benefit in January 1909

Damian Corless

This week 110 years ago, the people of Ireland partied well beyond New Year's Day as an ill wind from the distant past brought a windfall. At the start of 1909, the first Old Age Pensions Act became law, entitling anyone over the age of 70 in the UK of Britain and Ireland to a weekly payment. This was a lesser blessing than its backers pretended, since almost no-one lived to see 70.

Claimants of the five shillings per week (about €32 today) had to "be of good character". Disqualified persons included anyone convicted of drunkenness, certified insane or deemed guilty of a "habitual failure to work". Queues formed at post offices to collect the payouts. In Ballymoney, Co Antrim "the movements of the pensioners were watched by a large crowd of spectators". Increasingly shrill in its calls for prohibition, the Temperance movement tut-tutted at beelines made straight from post office to pub.

For many, however, the most striking aspect of Ireland's first OAPs was how young and sprightly they seemed. Many arriving at Dublin's Custom House didn't look even 60, while most in Waterford, far from having one foot in the grave, were "active and healthy, not to say brisk".

The sheer numbers of Ireland's peppy over-70s was noted in London. At the start of 1909, 261,668 applications were made here, proportionally a far greater uptake than in Britain. The Times in London suggested that 128pc of Ireland's over-70s were claiming.

One reason was that Ireland's vetting committees applied a unique test, matching up extreme old age with extreme weather. Claimants were asked if they remembered The Night of the Big Wind which rampaged across Ireland 180 years ago this week, on the night of January 6 and 7, 1839 and seared itself deep into the folk consciousness.

A 25-verse poem, 'Oíche na Gaoithe Móire (nó Deireadh An tSaoil)' was still a favourite party piece in 1909. Translating as 'The Night of the Big Wind (or the End of the World)', it said the "night of storm and burning" would be "clearly remembered forever". Britain had been whipped by the Gaoithe Móire, but the landscape of Ireland had been torn asunder and rearranged.

Conservative estimates claimed that between 250 and 300 people lost their lives in the worst storm to hit Ireland for 300 years.

The Dublin Evening Post described the capital as "a sacked city", with roofs, walls and chimneys ripped up and tossed about, with up to a quarter of homes in north Dublin damaged or destroyed. Nearly every roof in Newry was torn away. The Limerick Chronicle reported that "not a public edifice or institution in the city escaped the ravages of the storm and the best-built houses were sadly dismantled in the upper storeys".

The Ballyshannon Herald said the population of Donegal were so terrified that many believed that the end of the world really was nigh. The Kerry Evening Post reported the villagers of Ventry were convinced that "the priest's curse had brought it down" on them to punish the wickedness of those who had forsaken their faith. The faithful of the Bethesda chapel on Dublin's Dorset Street may also have felt a little forsaken by their God. Hours before the storm struck, they had given thanks at Sunday service for their safe delivery from an outbreak of fire the previous day. Sadly, the fire they believed extinguished was fanned back to life by the gale, and that night a fresh blaze destroyed the chapel, along with its women's jail and orphanage.

Thatched roofs went up in flames as embers from hearths were fanned and flung about by the gusts. The Tuam Herald carried reports of fire raining from the skies. In Loughrea, 71 buildings were razed to the ground while in Athlone more than 100 burned down.

It wasn't just burning embers raining from the skies. The Kerry Evening Post told of storm petrel seabirds "cast to the ground" in Westmeath, over 90 miles from their fishing grounds. Years later The Catholic Bulletin published a recollection that "all along the west coast for many days afterwards, herrings were found six miles inland". Separate reports from Cavan told of fish being plucked up from lakes and dropped in far-off fields. According to the Dublin Evening Post: "Trees, 10 or 12 mile from the sea, were covered with salt brine... 40 or 50 miles inland, vegetable matter had universally a saline taste."

Shifting bog

The storm raged so hard that it physically rearr­anged the landscape. The Ballyshannon Herald reported: "The sandbanks at the bar to our harbour were so considerably lowered by the storm that the sea washed over the 'sugar-loafs' and boats could pass where the tide had not before reached within half a mile."

The Limerick Chronicle told of how "three acres of the bog at Glounamuckalough" was yanked up like a strip of carpet. It "moved completely from its position and after traversing a distance of a mile, and crossing a rapid river, landed on the opposite side".

As the dust began to settle on the Night of the Big Wind, some shot the messenger. For over 100 years, the Royal Dublin Society had been advancing more scientific ways of measuring and forecasting the weather. Now the Dublin Evening Post took a swipe at the society, saying that if it was "worth a straw", it would furnish "a complete and minute account of the mischief".

This was 1839, when many pious people regarded science as heresy and when "an act of God" really did mean that God knows best.

Stung by this criticism, the RDS took out a newspaper advert inviting members of the general public to send details of storm damage to its officer at Dublin Castle. Pointedly, the advert stressed that the society would only welcome correspondence "with real signatures".

It wasn't too long before memories of The Big Wind - real or imagined - were no longer accepted as proof of age. Historian Cormac Ó Gráda unearthed the memoir of an official from a few years later, who recorded that the remarkably youthful pensioners of the first flush had vanished, describing "the bent, decrepit attitude and the high quavering voice peculiar to applicants" that became the norm.

Which was just how the pension's makers originally intended.

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